Book Review: Meet Cute: Some People are Destined to Meet

Title: Meet Cute: Some People are Destined to Meet
Author: Sona Charaipotra, Dhonielle Clayton, Nicola Yoon, Ibi Zoboi and others
Genres: Short Story Anthology
Pages: 320
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from NetGalley
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Whether or not you believe in fate, or luck, or love at first sight, every romance has to start somewhere. MEET CUTE is an anthology of original short stories featuring tales of “how they first met” from some of today’s most popular YA authors.

Readers will experience Nina LaCour’s beautifully written piece about two Bay Area girls meeting via a cranky customer service Tweet, Sara Shepard’s glossy tale about a magazine intern and a young rock star, Nicola Yoon’s imaginative take on break-ups and make-ups, Katie Cotugno’s story of two teens hiding out from the police at a house party, and Huntley Fitzpatrick’s charming love story that begins over iced teas at a diner. There’s futuristic flirting from Kass Morgan and Katharine McGee, a riveting transgender heroine from Meredith Russo, a subway missed connection moment from Jocelyn Davies, and a girl determined to get out of her small town from Ibi Zoboi. Jennifer Armentrout writes a sweet story about finding love from a missing library book, Emery Lord has a heartwarming and funny tale of two girls stuck in an airport, Dhonielle Clayton takes a thoughtful, speculate approach to pre-destined love, and Julie Murphy dreams up a fun twist on reality dating show contestants.

This incredibly talented group of authors brings us a collection of stories that are at turns romantic and witty, epic and everyday, heartbreaking and real.

Review: I found the premise of this collection of short stories a fun idea as one of the most intriguing aspects of romance is the fun and unique ways couples meet. Folks always ask couples for their “meet cute” story, so to have a entire short story collection of diverse meet cutes makes for some great winter break reading (at least for me). Not all the stories were sugar sweet; some had some deep questions about identity, fate, the notion of friendships, etc. The genres of the stories were diverse too, as not all stories were contemporary; there were some speculative fiction stories, some fantasy (or felt like fantasy), which I greatly enjoyed as the “meet cute” is a trope that is in all genres. There were a few stories that truly stood out to me, making me invested in the characters so much that I was disappointed that all I got was their meet cute story.

Dhonielle Clayton’s “The Way We Love Here” was a sweet story that challenged the notion of destined lovers. The story is set in a world where people are born with markings on their ring finger which fade as they age and come closer to meeting their beloved. Our two main characters aren’t looking for that day but end up learning what they will mean to each other. Both learn that their future will one they could not have expected, but that they will always be in each other’s lives in some way. I love how this story challenges the concept of “happily ever after” and that the future we believe we dream of when we are children become vastly different than what we could ever imagine.

Another favorite of mine featured a kick ass mathematician who decided to use statistics and probability to determine if she would ever meet the cute guy she had a chance meeting with on the subway. Jocelyn Davies’s “The Unlikely Likelihood of Falling in Love” follows the main character as she decides to write a term paper about the chances of meeting someone twice in New York City. We follow her as she develops her hypothesis, runs her tests, and lastly, her conclusion. It is a fun read as she theorizes about the cute guy and the different results of her tests to see if she would see him again. I loved this story because I loved that the main character was a math whiz and looked at the world very analytically. She was also the only girl in her class, but did not receive any negative push back from her classmates. This story was also fun in a “will she succeed or won’t she” way that made me really question if a meet cute was every going to happen.

Meet Cute is an anthology you must read slowly, taking your time to savor all the different stories and how they incorporate deeper themes all within the fun story of “how did this couple meet.”

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Mini-reviews

This week we did not find any new releases. Instead we have two mini-reviews.

Title: Evangelina Takes Flight
Author: Diana J. Noble
Publisher: Arte Publico Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 195
Availability: On shelves now
Review Copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: “If they do come here, they’ll show us no mercy,” thirteen-year-old Evangelina overhears her father say as she gathers eggs in the chicken pen. Back at the house, Mamá brushes away her fears of revolutionaries. There are even more chores than usual to be done at Rancho Encantado because her sister’s quinceañera celebration is rapidly approaching!

It’s the summer of 1911 in northern Mexico, and soon the de León family learns that the rumors of soldiers in the region are true. Evangelina’s father decides they must leave their home to avoid the violence. The trip north to a small town on the U.S. side of the border is filled with fear and anxiety as they worry about loved ones left behind and the uncertain future ahead.

Life in Texas is confusing, though the signs in shop windows that say “No Mexicans” and some people’s reactions to them are all-too clear. At school, she encounters the same puzzling resentment. The teacher wants to give the Mexican children lessons on basic hygiene! And one girl in particular delights in taunting the foreign-born students. Why can’t people understand that—even though she’s only starting to learn English—she’s just like them?

With the help and encouragement of the town’s doctor and the attentions of a handsome boy, Evangelina begins to imagine a new future for herself. This moving historical novel introduces teens to the tumultuous times of the Mexican Revolution and the experiences of immigrants, especially Mexican Americans, as they adjust to a new way of life.

Review: Evangelina is part of a loving family and she enjoys the quiet predictability of their days. Her older sister thinks where they live is boring and wishes to go to someplace like Paris, France, but Evangelina sees the beauty there and never wants to leave. With the revolution coming closer and closer to their home though, her family leaves for safety.

Evangelina has a tender heart and is often helping those around her be they family or strangers. That makes it even more puzzling to her that the people in Texas glare at them, insult them, and have signs in store windows saying, “No Mexicans.” Evangelina cannot understand how people treat her and her family so poorly without even knowing them. They face a lot of hostility as they try to make their way in this new place.

Evangelina has a close relationship with her grandfather. He is a storyteller, but he also encourages her. He tells her to dream and to reach for those dreams. When her family is struggling, she looks for ways to help. She impresses a local doctor and when he offers her a job, she is eager to take it so she can give her earnings to her family. The doctor ends up being a white savior figure, though Evangelina does some of the work to solve problems too.

Recommendation: Those looking for historical fiction will find this a way to get a glimpse into Texas/Mexican relations in the early 1900s. It would be a nice one to pair with Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Shame the Stars which also takes place during the Mexican Revolution


Title: The Cholo Tree
Author: Daniel Chacon
Publisher: Arte Publico Press
Genre: Contemporary
Pages: 248
Availability: On shelves now
Review Copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: This novel follows a young Chicano artist who develops his craft while dealing with the daily struggles of his family, community and his own addictions.

Review: Victor keeps explaining that he is not a cholo. He’s not the thug everyone seems to see when they look at him. His mother, teachers, and many people in his life keep labeling him a cholo based on his appearance since he’s brown skinned and wears clothes people associate with gangs. That’s not how he sees himself though. He sees himself as an artist before anything else.He just wants to be himself and be seen for who he is and not who people expect him to be.

Victor has a few people in his life who see potential in him and they encourage his art and help him to dream and see past the present. He loves to draw and create. He even creates in the kitchen. He enjoys making food and feeding people his creations. His art and cooking are things he can hold onto when things around him are taking a turn for the worse.

The Cholo Tree takes a good hard look at perceptions and assumptions and how those can be at work in someone’s life. This book is harsh and raw at times as Victor struggles to get a vision of who he is and who he wants to be. There are deep moments of introspection and philosophy, but there are also some playful times. Victor has imaginary friends. Yes, this fourteen year old boy has an imaginary chef helping him with his cooking. Sometimes the imaginary bits seemed a little out of place in the midst of things like gang shootings, but it mostly worked.

Recommendation: Get this one someday if you like contemporary books with an interesting character. Victor has a lot of layers. The writing isn’t always smooth, but Victor’s story is compelling.

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Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Title: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Author: Erika L. Sánchez
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

Review: (Note: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, mentions of rape, brief descriptions of attempted suicide, homomisia, sex-shaming, fat-shaming, murder, and a semi-graphic description of an animal being slaughtered.)

This review is going to be a difficult one to write. On the one hand, there are a lot of excellent parts in Erika L. Sánchez’s debut—a prickly, angry heroine who deals with anxiety and depression, struggling to survive in the aftermath of her older sister’s death and trying to forge an identity and future for herself in spite of her parents’ demands and expectations. Mexican culture and the Spanish language permeate every corner of the book, and Julia’s opinion of and experience in Chicago are colored by all of that.

There’s also a lot of discussion about immigration, from the very real dangers and fear that compel some to risk everything to cross the border to the alienation and loneliness of being kept apart from family. At one point, Julia’s English teacher urges her to write about her parents’ undocumented status for a college entrance essay, and Julia’s immediate reaction is fear for her parents and disbelief that he would ask her to do that. Her family and community have seen lives torn apart by immigration enforcement; how can he be so cavalier about suggesting she expose her parents when there have been raids at the plant her father works in?

Julia’s anxiety and depression are also important to see on the page, both how mental illness is generally not talked about in Latinx communities and also in positive depictions of therapy and medication. This is the third YA book I’ve read in the last few years that stars a Latinx character who deals with mental illness (When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez and The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork being the other two), and it is reassuring to know that there is yet another novel out there to help Latinx teens.

Unfortunately, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’s helpfulness will be limited by its unrepentant fat-shaming. While the sex-shaming generally gets a not-insignificant amount of pushback, either from Julia’s commentary on double standards or from a conversation with her therapist, the fat-shaming largely goes unchallenged. And it is pretty awful and omnipresent: “Amá says Paloma has a thyroid problem, and I feel bad for her, but I’ve seen her eat three tortas in one sitting. Thyroid, my ass,” or “She is always sucking her teeth at what I’m wearing or making some comment about my weight, even though she’s more floppy and misshapen than a sack of laundry,” or “Even if they’re fat, they move as if they think they’re fabulous.” That last one is a clear moment where Julia’s own internalized fat-shaming has popped up, but aside from a brief passage where Julia points out that she’s fat on the U.S. side and too skinny on the Mexican side, all of this cruelty and snark and disgust about other people’s bodies is a slap to the reader’s face. It has been a while since I’ve read a book that made me feel this awful about my own fat Latina self, so take that under advisement before you dive in.

Otherwise, IANYPMD felt unbalanced plot-wise. Based on the summary, I expected this to focus mostly on Julia, her best friend, and her boyfriend uncovering the mysteries of Olga, but Olga gets shoved aside for a good chunk of the book to grapple with Julia’s problems, and the best friend and boyfriend do almost nothing to help uncover those mysteries. This had the unfortunate consequence of giving these supporting characters too little depth to be adequate supports for Julia’s story, and Olga’s story turns more into a distraction or an afterthought than anything else. I think I would have preferred there was no mystery to Olga because of how inadequately her story was handled.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. While I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tackles important and timely issues related to mental health, immigration, and the Mexican-American community, the novel is kept from greatness by its pervasive fat-shaming and unbalanced plot.

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Mini-Review: Code Name: Butterfly

Title: Code Name: Butterfly
Author: Ahlam Bharat, Translation by Nancy Roberts
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 90 pages
Publisher: Neem Tree Press
Review Copy: Copy from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Should you feel bad if your dad works for the Israeli occupiers? What if he loses his job? And how are you supposed to cope when someone close to you dies?

Butterfly is smart. Some people even say she’s shrewd, but that doesn’t make life any less confusing. Every day throws up new questions and some are too big for her to handle alone. Squirrelling away the difficult ones in her treasure chest, Butterfly creates a place of strength in her imagination. While her classmates turn to protest and violence, Butterfly finds her own form of resilience, her own secret way to find peace in a world of conflict and uncertainty.

Written with ironic humour and touching idealism, Butterfly looks back at a turbulent summer in her early teens, drawing us into her world of adult hypocrisy, sibling rivalries, power struggles with her school friends, unrequited love… and the daily tensions of Palestinian life under military occupation. A teenage perspective on one of the most protracted conflicts of our times, Code Name: Butterfly is a story for all teens grappling with friendship, family and the emotional storms ahead.

Review: Unfortunately American publishers export more novels than we import, therefore we miss out on numerous stories from around the world, specifically books in translation. That is why when I was offered the opportunity to read a book in translation, I jumped at the chance. Code Name: Butterfly allowed me a window in the world of a Palestinian teen who is trying to make sense and find her place in her world.

While no specific age is given, the main character, who never gives the reader her name and refers to herself as a butterfly, reminded me of my 7th grade students. At that age, they become goofy because puberty is hitting hard and they are trying to make sense of what their body is doing, as well as their brain moves into a different developmental stage and all of a sudden they are filled with all these questions and thoughts. Many times young teens tend to keep these questions to themselves, which is what our butterfly does – she keeps her questions in a mental treasure chest. I loved this aspect of her character because it was real to her and they way the author describes the chest and how she “writes” down the questions to put the chest, really brought to life the mind of a young teen.

In addition to her teenage struggles is the backdrop of living under oppression. Living in a village near an Israeli settlement, we learn what life is like for her family, friends, and the other people in her village. The tenuous relationship between the Palestinian and the Israeli people is shown through her father’s work at an Israeli farm in the settlement, as well as through the other systematic ways the Israeli’s control the Palestinian people. In one chapter, during summer vacation, due to the restrictions placed on her village the main character is not allowed to play outside. This completely broke my heart. And while these injustices to her people did not fully bring her down, a number of the questions that the main character asks is in relation to the treatment of her people and the question of when will they ever be free.

I really enjoyed this novella, specifically being with a character who is sweet, thoughtful, and mostly inquisitive. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into her life and the opportunity to set into the shoes of someone whose life is completely different from mine. My only wish is that this book was more readily available. It is on some book sites, but you’ll have to do some searching. I highly recommend librarians and teachers find a way to get this book and share it with your students, as books like Code Name: Butterfly will open up the world to them.

 

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Review: The Day Tajon Got Shot

Title: The Day Tajon Got Shot
Authors: The Teen Writers of Beacon House
Publisher: Shout Mouse Press
Pages: 190
Genre: Contemporary, Issue
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: Meet Tajon.

Tajon is sixteen and black.
He’s tall and skinny, and he wears his hair in dreads.
Tajon works hard and tries his best to be good.
He does OK in school. He has plans.
He’s determined.

Tajon is the kind of son who cares about his family.
He’s the kind of brother who stands up for his sister.
He’s the kind of kid who dreams big dreams to get himself and
those he loves up and out of the hood.

Tajon is the one who gets shot.

Meet the authors: Mikiah, T’Asia, J’yona, Reiyanna, Jonae, Rose, Najae, Serenity  Jeanet, and Temil. Ten black teen girls in Washington, DC started writing this book during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. They began with one central question: What really happens in a community when a black youth is the victim of violence by police? Each writer takes on the perspective of a central character – the victim, the police officer, the witness, the parent, the friend – and examines how it feels to be a human being on all sides of this event. Their stories thoughtfully explore issues of race, violence, loyalty, and justice in a community torn apart but seeking connection.

Review: The Day Tajon Got Shot presents Tajon’s story in a unique way. It’s told from many perspectives using many forms of media. It means that we don’t get to know all of the characters in great depth, but we do get to see this one major event from many angles. The writers were careful to show that the characters are not simply good or evil. They show how complex people and situations can be. I enjoyed the mix of photographs, artwork, poetry, prose, and even tweets. The format makes this book appealing to readers who like quick reads. It’s also just interesting to see the different ways the writers chose to communicate. It appears that they staged many of the pictures, but some of the photos seems to have been from actual protests. Some of the images could be troubling for readers who are fatigued after seeing many instances of violence against young Black people. There weren’t any photos of actual wounds, but there were blood stains on the ground and people in frightening situations. The images definitely do the job of communicating emotion. There is also a much too lengthy list of the people of color who were killed by police during the time they were writing the book. For me, that was one of the most difficult parts to read and it really drove home the reason for the existence of this book.

This is the kind of book that would be useful for inspiring discussion and could even be a model for other teens who would like to write or do something in response to current issues. The writers want to help make a change. They have hope and tell about the way things are and the way they think things should be.

I liked how the different parts of the book worked together. All of the pieces supported the story from text formats to the graphics to the layout. The dedication kicks it off, “This book is for all those who are going through loss and pain, who have protested, and who are sick and tired of what is going on.” The next element is a quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor referencing, “… people who are routinely targeted by police….Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.” The quote is followed by a preface which was surprisingly lengthy. It provides the context for the project though and has helpful information. Some readers may just skip to the artwork and opening poem, “The Evidence” by Camisha Jones, which is quite powerful.

There are photos and brief descriptions of each main character followed by the narrative which alternates between characters with breaks for media. The writing isn’t incredibly sophisticated, but that made sense within this format of brief sections. Also, I appreciated that the voices of the teens hadn’t seemed to be overpowered by adult editing. The authors took risks sharing the realities they see in their own way. They stepped out in the hope and belief that their voices matter and they created a book that will surely inform and affect many readers.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re looking for realistic fiction about current events, especially if you’re interested in hearing directly from teens.

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Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand LanternsTitle: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
Review Copy: Library
Availability: Available now!

Summary: An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: There’s something about retellings of the Evil Queen legend from Snow White that almost always captures the imagination. She’s a fascinating figure — evil, beautiful, and destined to be undone by some sweet girl with a taste for apples. The retelling that haunts me the most is Neil Gaiman’s chilling short story.

I think it’s safe to say that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has usurped that particular throne. This story, influenced by the culture and history of Imperial China, is beautifully written — fitting for a story about a surpassingly beautiful empress-to-be. It tells the dark path Xifeng must take to rise above her humble origins and become queen.

Of course, that path is not easy. Xifeng struggles to free herself of the evil within her, along with the voice of her abusive aunt who all along has pushed her to pursue her powerful destiny and her conflicted feelings for her love, Wei. She’s a sympathetic figure, torn between her loyalty to the flawed people in her life and her unyielding ambition. As you follow along with her struggles, it’s easy to forget the framework of the story and who she’s meant to become – the Evil Queen from Snow White.

And at other times, it’s not so easy to forget. Xifeng’s ambition means that she regards most women as beneath her in one way or another, and she often does or says things that are cruel and vicious. At the same time, the conniving, backstabbing nature of the imperial court means that no one — except for, like, two men early in the story — comes out looking good. And I don’t know how I feel about one key (super spoilerly) reveal and its implications. This is definitely a tale told from the perspective of a rising villain, and no punches are pulled. At least for me, it’s hard to be comfortable with that.

Finally, I have to mention the worldbuilding. The details and imagery is just gorgeous. Every mention of a meal left me hungry (sugar dusted persimmon cakes! want!). This, along with the hint of the future Snow White storyline, is why I’m looking forward to the sequel. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for that. If you love a good fairy tale reimagining, you’ll want to check this book out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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